CALGARY -- To prevent Olympic athletes from seeming too distant and impersonal to the American viewer, ABC Sports invented "Up Close and Personal" in 1972. So nowadays, those medal contenders from faraway lands competing in unfamiliar sports seem as close to home to us as, say, the Joneses next door.

It has become a marvelous bit of signature television. In fact, of Roone Arledge's innumerable innovations, none has epitomized ABC's Olympic style more than "Up Close and Personal."

This year, ABC has produced so many "Up Close and Personal" pieces -- a record 82 -- that viewers might end up knowing more about perfect strangers than they do their own families.

The "Up Close" formula has remained the same, but the segments have evolved a bit. In 1984, they switched from film to video. At three minutes in length, they're a bit shorter than they used to be, only Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker will narrate (as opposed to eight or 10 announcers in 1984) to give the segments a clearer identity. And what we'll see and learn about the athletes will be changed a bit.

"The initial concept {in '72} was to give people a feel of where the athlete came from and how he trained. We've tried to focus it down to the athlete's personality more," said ABC producer Noubar Stone, 32, head of the "Up Close" unit.

"This year we said, 'Let's try to do something a little different.' You won't get as many of those basic shots of the athlete running up a hill or a skater practicing on the ice. . . . Our interviewing has changed. It used to be a novelty just to get into an athlete's home. It's like in the early days of TV, there would be a 30-minute show of a lady playing an organ and people would watch."

To give them more, Stone had two producers, three associate producers, three associate directors, four production assistants and three researchers spanning the globe to bring us the constant variety of sporting personality.

Stone, who worked 4 1/2 years on Howard Cosell's "SportsBeat," said his unit got every story it wanted. The "Up Close" unit generally spent two days with each subject. One segment has no narration -- only U.S. biathlete Josh Thompson talking. One segment has no talking from the featured athlete -- only because Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykanen refused to be interviewed.

"Up Close" profiles many of the obvious choices (U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas, Swiss skier Pirmin Zurbriggen) as well as countless lesser-known names. In many cases, the athletes speak in their native languages because, Stone said, "I'd much rather hear a person in their own language with a translator than a person whose English is halting. It's important that the athlete not feel stilted."

With the recent cost-cutting at Capital Cities/ABC, a cutback on "Up Close" might have seemed imminent. After all, it's not cheap to reach out and touch 82 people worldwide. But Stone said his unit did not feel constrained financially; in fact, the unit also produced 55 features that highlight techniques and training of athletes and explain why certain nations dominate a sport.

"If somebody needed something special, we did it. We did all we wanted to do and finished under budget . . . I think," Stone said. "Sure, we were conscious of costs . . . But it really was just a case of planning better, like making the most out of {each trip to Europe}."

Stone estimated the average cost of each of the 82 athlete profiles as near $25,000.

Not all the segments will air. It depends on time constraints during ABC's 94 1/2 hours of coverage. The skiing segments, for instance, are harder to get in because there are no natural breaks during the competition.

"And let's face it," Stone said, "you've got to get the commercials in."